For 10 years now, ABC, CBS and NBC have been longing for something in their prime-time lineups that might grab a chunk of that crowd-pleasing, ratings-winning lightning that Fox's American Idol has so tightly bottled.
The Voice is merely the latest attempt. It's another celebrity-anchored talent program with a few reality show tweaks in its back pocket that NBC hopes will amount to a Goliath-thumping slingshot rock. (Or at the very least a "we're playing too" musical kick in the shins.) So, what's the big diff? First of all, instead of a mix of producers and veteran performers on the judging panel, The Voice shows off four of-the-moment artists from a variety of musical genres. Specifically: diva Christina Aguilera, R&B force Cee Lo Green, suave Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and new country fave Blake Shelton.
That's not enough of a distinction to go the distance, of course. So the NBC brainstormers came up with a bushel or two more: First, Voice replaces the standard talent-show/cattle-call format used on Idol with a one-on-one gladiator-style competition (with songs replacing swords). Second, the judges don't just judge: They're the primary singing coaches here. Successful competitors are divvied up into teams, each team collectively nestling under one of the judge's wings. That way, as the field is being pruned and winnowed, the judges (along with professional advisers such as country queen Reba McEntire and music producer Adam Blackstone) dole out specialized pointers and personally mentor the singers performing under their banner.
But the thing that most significantly sets The Voice apart is its "blind audition" process. Ensconced in a carnival ride-like chair, the judges sit with their backs turned to the singers, which means that all they can judge them on is … the voice. No risk of being distracted by glittery lip gloss or Sammy Hagar high-kicks. The singers could be tattooed bikers from Seattle or goose farmers from Nebraska. It doesn't matter what they look like. It matters what they sound like.
Well, at least that's all that matters to the judges. For viewers it's a different story. The Voice doesn't want us to just marvel at soaring vocals. It wants us to get to know the people who deliver them—far more intimately than on Idol. In fact, NBC's talent show has lots of folks buzzing over just how eager the singers are to share their personal backstories. And while that means we might hear more about a person's heartfelt faith or devotion to an ailing mother, we also hear quite a lot about openly gay and lesbian contestants.
According to Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd, it all comes down to production, not moral values. He writes, "[The] producers on Idol … don't think sexual orientation is relevant to a singing competition and so they don't really see a reason to go there with contestants. … Whereas producers on The Voice … think such information is relevant because it's part of showing a person 'authentically.'" Interestingly enough, right after the first episodes, judge Blake Shelton tweeted what some interpreted as a homophobic reaction to the gay contestants—which stirred up the show's first dose of controversy.
"Battles: Round 3"
In the third Battle round of competition, each judge/coach chooses two budding artists to practice together and go head-to-head in the spotlight in order to determine who will move on to the Live rounds. The contestants' challenge is to sing with their partner/opponent in a hopefully pleasing duet. Songs include Rihanna's "Only Girl in the World," The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love," Radiohead's "Creep" and Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten."
The music, chosen in hopes of stretching the contestants, yields mixed results. Judge responses range from "charming" to "cohesive" to out and out "bizarre." But the virtues of hard work and the realities of hard-knock rejection both ring loud and clear in the end. Touching moments—such as two "pig farmer" sisters praying backstage—are part of the reality collage. One song includes the word "h‑‑‑."